WHY Ken Kalfus is not better known is a mystery to me. His three novels are bewitchingly clever, sinisterly witty and viciously affecting.
Coup De Foudre
The Commissariat Of Enlightenment introduced a fictitious, and latterly Soviet-sponsored film-maker, Gribshin, who arrives at Tolstoy’s deathbed alongside the real scientist and embalming expert Vorobev and a young Joseph Stalin.
A Disorder Peculiar To The Country featured a couple, each of whom erroneously thinks the other has died in the 11 September attacks. For the brief period before they realise their mutual mistake, it is the happiest day of the lives. Equilateral was a fantasia about a 19th century plan to create a triangle, 306 miles on each side and five miles thick, filled with burning oil in the Egyptian desert – to signal to Mars that we were sufficiently technologically developed to join “the fraternity of planetary civilisations”. Although I knew he had written short stories, I had only read his homage to and subversion of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, titled Invisible Malls. This collection – a 70-page novella and then two sections of shorter pieces, “Factitious Airs” and “The Future” – is almost my ideal of what the short story collection can do. The pieces are sufficiently different in terms of style and form that the reader never knows what to expect next – gimlet-eyed realism, creepy, surreal fables, satire, Chandler-esque obfuscated epiphanies or Borgesian parables.
The opening story, which gives its title to the collection, is narrated by one David Landau, a thinly veiled Dominique Strauss-Kahn. It takes the form of a letter written to a hotel maid he has assaulted, a letter he intends never to send. The incisive wit is immediately evident – at one point he muses: “The thought that everything depended on Angela Merkel reverberated across the bright hours in the morning after the Washington sex party.” Kalfus manages to keep the reader ambivalent about Landau without ever making him sympathetic. He is a lecherous braggart and a genuine idealist, a delusional egomaniac who nevertheless empathises with the problems of the developing world, if not the rights of those who have fled from it. Especially admirable is the way in which his speeches might be both true and are yet delusional justifications for his actions. “When the International Monetary Fund,” he writes, “lends a troubled nation money for economic development, the institution is clearing the way to a freer, more joyous and more loving sex life for its people”. This is both hollow and profound. It is difficult to construct a story without making the victim as much as the perpetrator a stereotype; and Kalfus leaves an ingenious immoral dilemma as a twist, one in which the political subjugation and the personal affront coincide perfectly. The final line, “The e-mail would strike your lawyer like a thunderbolt”, echoes the collection’s epigraph – “Some innocents ’scape not the thunderbolt”, from Antony And Cleopatra.
The thunderbolt that strikes in the second story is more metaphysical. During his execution, a murderer curses the town where he had lived. That night, every resident dreams the exact date of their death. The ways in which people react to this foreknowledge is beautifully diverse. Some celebrate the forthcoming day as a kind of anti-birthday, some seek to elude their fate, the civic authorities try to reorder the calendar to confuse people about their own mortality. It is an impossible fiction shrouding a real truth: although we may not know exactly when, our knowledge of our mortality determines us.
Although there are strikingly naturalistic pieces – I would single out “Mercury” about an unspecified transgression by an elementary school teacher, a scintillating story about laser corrective eye surgery and a beautifully malevolent story about racism among a community of retirees – Kalfus excels in the more fantastical forms.
In particular, he has a nicely sardonic line in stories about the business of storytelling itself. One parable concerns a book which, when read, makes every other book wrong and irrelevant, a neat definition of every book; another is presented as a grammar to an extinct language. “Instructions For My Literary Executors” is a delightful bagatelle, from the “Big Book”, of which the author “was never satisfied with the characters, the plot, the setting, or the point of view”, to an insistence that messages he left on answerphones and forwarded email jokes must all be preserved for posterity.
But the best of these is “The Un-”, which opens “There were hundreds of ways to go crazy wanting to be a writer” and then enumerates them with growing hysteria, schadenfreude and resentment. It is sad, hilarious, affecting and true: I liked description of a literary reading where the narrator realised that “although he had been closely attentive to the author’s appearance, voice, and mannerisms, as well as to his almost aphoristic responses to the questions, he couldn’t recall a single detail from the man’s work… he cared mostly, nearly only, about someday publishing his own novel – which the audiences attending his readings would hardly care about either. The author had sold one copy of his novel this evening.”
That Kalfus is not as famous as some writers ought not to concern him. He can outwrite any of them. This book is the kind of tonic that reminds the reader how profuse contemporary literature can be.